A shooter game has to do a few things well in order to qualify as “good”. It needs to have an intuitive control scheme (if you have to break out the manual every time you want to change weapons, it’s not going to be a fun experience). It needs to have straightforward gameplay mechanics (if a particular weapon has fifteen different possible modes but you can’t figure out how to zoom in through the scope for a headshot when you need to, it has failed). It needs to have either a compelling single-player campaign, or a great multiplayer setup- or preferably, both.
Above all, a good shooter game should stick to the single most important attribute of such games: it should be all about the shooting. A supposed “shooter” that puts its emphasis on solving puzzles instead of shooting things does not know what it is, and will fail.
What makes Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine so unusual, and so compelling as a game, is that it follows the first three rules faithfully—and then completely ignores the fourth by becoming a rather odd hybrid between a third-person shooter of the Gears of War type, and a third-person fantasy hack-and-slash RPG game like, say, Darksiders or God of War.
This attempt to blend two separate and distinct genres into one could have been disastrous. (Daikatana, anyone?) Blending two different and distinct genres in gaming into a single whole is similar to what the Japanese like to do with curry-flavoured lemonade and squid-ink ice cream, but it rarely works well anywhere else.
It is to Relic Entertainment’s tremendous credit, then, that they not only managed to pull off that blending, but also crafted a genuinely dark, brutal, and enjoyable game in the process.
“In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, There is Only War”
Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop turn-based miniatures game designed by the storied Games Workshop in the UK, and played by
people with waaaay too much spare time strategy gaming nerds who spend countless hours labouriously painting figurines and battlefields into vast customisable armies, then pitting them against each other using arcane codexes full of complex and incomprehensible (to an outsider) rules. It is a lot of fun, for certain definitions of the word, but it requires a degree of dedication that most console and PC gamers simply will not have the time or money for.
Yet the people who play the tabletop version of the game are incredibly hard-core about it; they make HALO addicts like me look tame by comparison.
And because of that extremely dedicated fanbase, the lore behind the game is vast, rich, and incredibly deep.
The basic idea is that, in the 31st Millennium, Mankind expands its reach far out into space under the aegis of the God-Emperor, a human of immense psychic and spiritual power who leads the Imperium of Man into the stars. However, a cataclysmic civil war known within the canon as the Horus Heresy takes place just as the Imperium reaches the zenith of its power and glory, forever destroying the unity of Mankind and condemning the uncounted trillions of humanity to more than ten thousand years of slaughter among the stars.
Technology and culture stagnate as the Imperium becomes an oppressive theocracy maintained by a gargantuan bureaucracy and a colossal military. Yet for all of its failings, the Imperium remains the only hope for Mankind, for the enemies of Man, in the form of Orks, Tyranids, Necrons, and the ever-present daemonic forces of Chaos, are beyond counting, and hungrily seek any opportunity to inflict unspeakable horrors upon the galaxy.
This brings us to the “present day” in the WH40K canon, the 41st Millennium, a horrific dystopia of endless, grinding nihilism in which there is only war and death. It’s the perfect setting for a bloody, brutal, and absorbing single-player “hack-and-shoot” game, provided that the game developer doesn’t screw it up by taking great basic ingredients and blending them badly into an unpalatable mess.
Relic Entertainment took on the challenge, and (mostly) succeeded where most developers would have failed, miserably.
“They Shall Know No Fear”
You don’t need to know any of this backstory at all to play this game. It puts you squarely in the immense boots (and power armour) of Captain Titus, commander of the 2nd Company of the legendary Ultramarines chapter of the Emperor’s “Angels of Death”, the Space Marines. You are called to help the Imperial Forge World of Graia fend off a massive Ork invasion while guarding the Warlord-class Titan Invictus. Through the course of five “chapters” in the main campaign, you will lead the charge into the very maw of Hell, blasting and hacking through countless enemies on your way to liberating the planet.
Space Marine doesn’t mess about. After a simple introduction to tell you why you’re about to go to war, it drops you right smack into the middle of the action. You start with limited weaponry- a pistol, a bolter (assault rifle), and a melee weapon. You get a brief tutorial showing you how the gameplay works (conveniently delivered while you’re in the middle of slaughtering your foes), and then you’re off to massacre and disembowel anyone who gets in your way.
The gameplay doesn’t mess around either. You have a regenerating armour layer which “heals” over time as you stand in cover, and a health bar that can only be replenished through “executions. You can stun an enemy using a powerful melee attack, or in some cases through hitting him enough with a relatively low-powered ranged weapon, and then you execute him in spectacularly nasty fashion, up close and personal. The entire setup is designed to make it as easy as possible to slay your enemies in the bloodiest way imaginable.
There is no cover system—the only way to get out of harm’s way is to simply get out of the line of fire, but you can’t shoot around cover or crouch behind anything. The point of the game is to engage your enemies, first by shooting them in their faces, then by moving into close range and hacking them apart or by charging straight into them and smashing them aside.
If you’re looking for tactical finesse or subtle manoeuvre warfare, this is NOT the game for you. This game is “as dainty as a hobnail boot, as feminine as a burst sausage”, and as subtle as an atomic bomb.
And I have to say, it’s tremendous fun.
The developers put a lot of thought into making the gameplay challenging without being ridiculous. The majority of enemies are easy to dispatch, but occasionally you’ll run into certain heavy units like the Ork Nobz and Chaos Devastator Marines that require some tactical finesse to defeat (you can’t just charge head-on into a group of Nobz or Chaos Marines and hope to survive). Along the way, you can upgrade your weapons, your armour, and your attacks, but the basic mechanics of the gameplay remain focused on delivering a bloody, brutal, and grimly satisfying campaign.
The Angels of Death
Two features of the gameplay particularly stand out for me.
The first is the “Fury” meter. This idea seems to have been taken from God of War. Basically, as you slaughter enough enemies and build up “fury”, your Fury meter fills up until such time as you can unleash your wrath upon the enemies of the God Emperor. When you go into “Fury mode”, your attack strength vastly increases and your health rapidly regenerates. You can upgrade “Fury mode” over the course of the game so that it drains more slowly, and so that you can enter into a “bullet time” mode when using a ranged weapon which greatly slows down time and increases both accuracy and damage from your ranged attacks. You have to use your Fury ability judiciously (there are certain boss battles that you simply cannot get through if you waste your Fury early), but when you time it right and unleash Fury against a large number of difficult enemies, the results are spectacular.
The second is the inclusion of jet-packs in the game. You can put on a jump pack in at least three different levels, and this introduces a whole new dimension to the combat. The jump pack allows you to launch yourself high into the air and then lets you select a landing spot where you can smash down into your enemies with a thoroughly satisfying, bone-shattering blast. You can also combine the jump pack attacks with heavier weapons like the Power Axe and Thunder Hammer to enjoy some truly memorable blood-‘n-guts melee action.
The control scheme is simple, direct, and completely intuitive, which is unsurprising, given that Relic Entertainment specifically recruited people with experience working in console games to write this game. As a result, the control scheme will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played Gears of War and God of War. (Note: when I talk about the controls here, I’m using the Xbox 360 controller as my reference point; PS3 and PC gamers may have had different experiences.)
Some FPS games (like, say, the entire Crysis series) give you a huge number of ways to customise your weapons and swap between various loadouts, but WH40K succeeds by keeping things simple. It takes a lot of cues from the Gears of War series by giving you four possible guns: your pistol with infinite ammo, your bolter, and two other ranged or heavy weapons which can be swapped out as you progress through the game. Grenades are tossed by pressing a bumper button. Sighting is done by pressing down on a control stick.
Melee attacks are chained together by pressing the X and Y buttons in sequence, and depending on which melee weapon you’re using, you can put together some truly brutal heavy combos. (The Thunder Smash, using the Thunder Hammer, is a particular favourite of mine. Nothing says “DIE BITCH” to an enemy quite like caving his head in with a ridiculously overpowered giant hammer.)
On top of compelling and enjoyable, if somewhat simplistic, gameplay and highly intuitive controls, this game’s story is solid. You start by defending the Forge World of Graia, but as you progress, it becomes clear that far darker forces than Orks are at work. You discover eventually that the desperate battle you’re fighting has been manipulated all along by the dark forces of Chaos, and the plot twist that takes place suddenly changes everything.
From that point onward, the game becomes far more challenging and somehow manages to get even darker. You are faced with terrifying new daemonic enemies, along with Chaos Space Marines who are twisted dark mirror images of you and have all of your abilities and strengths. The story never gets bogged down and keeps moving forward at a steady clip, satisfyingly punctuated by the eardrum-numbing chorus of explosions, Ork battle yells, and guttural roars of daemons. By the time you get to the end of the (somewhat short) campaign, you’ll feel a bittersweet sense of satisfaction tempered by mild disappointment at the slightly anticlimactic ending.
“We March for Macragge!”
As good as it is, this game is far from perfect.
For one, this game’s graphics just aren’t that great. The game was released in 2011, well after HALO: Reach and around the same time as Gears of War 3. At that point, the Xbox 360 and the PS3 were both roughly seven-year-old consoles, so it should have been possible to craft a game with compelling graphics. Yet the graphics lack sharpness and detail, the cutscene quality isn’t great, and the otherwise impressive Gothic backgrounds and scene architecture just don’t impress as much as they would have if the graphics were better. When it came to delivering a grim and gritty experience, the aforementioned GoW3 did a far better job, mostly because the graphics were far better.
Second, the soundtrack is quite repetitive. A good game needs to have a decent soundtrack, which this game does, but a great game’s soundtrack is often worthy to stand alone as a musical achievement in its own right, which is a big part of the success of the HALO franchise. By comparison, this game loops the same basic tracks over and over again, and the sound effects tend to grate after a while. You can’t play this game for eight hours straight—your eardrums will simply shut down and you’ll get a headache from the overly repetitive sound effects.
Third, the campaign is just too short. I didn’t bother with multiplayer since I’m a campaign gamer, but you could get through the entire campaign in about 10 hours in your first play through; and if you play it a few times over, as I have, you can get it down to five or six hours of campaign gameplay. The campaign is totally linear; this doesn’t bother me overly much, but others may find the total lack of exploration or open-world features to be limiting and boring.
But the biggest flaw by a mile has got to be the fact that, frankly, this game just isn’t that hard once you know how to play it. It’s tremendous fun, don’t get me wrong, but once you’ve figured out the basics, you can blast through the game on the hardest difficulty setting without really breaking a sweat. At the end of the game, you face foes that are far more numerous, powerful, and resilient than you are, and yet, with simple and judicious use of cover, Fury, and the right weapons loadout (if you go into the final battle armed with a Melta Gun, Vengeance Launcher, and Power Axe, you really can’t lose), you’ll prevail quickly. Even the final battle against Nemeroth is pretty straightforward (it simply comes down to timing his blows and paying attention to the quick-time events).
The Didact’s Verdict
Gameplay – Solid, absorbing, intuitive, and straightforward, but the game is just too damn short. Replay value is limited at best, and multiplayer matches aren’t much fun (or so I’m told). 30 out of 45
Controls – Highly intuitive, very straightforward to understand and use. It’s very easy to use stationary weapons like Heavy Bolters and Plasma Cannons. Every melee weapon has a unique set of combos that can be chained together very easily. Definitely one of the better control schemes I’ve come across. 25 out of 25
Graphics – Not great, and the game is definitely showing its age now in the era of high-definition gaming on newer consoles. Thanks to THQ’s bankruptcy, we’ll probably never see an anniversary edition or remake of this game, so we’re stuck with the rather grainy graphics that this game came with. 8 out of 15
Sound – While the music is atmospheric and appropriately downbeat, it’s also a bit repetitive. Nothing about the soundtrack really stands out, which makes this game less memorable and enjoyable than it would have been with a really great soundtrack. Sound effects tend to grate after a while—there is only so much of Orks roaring “WAAAAAAGH!!!” that the human mind can tolerate, but this game feeds them to you in endless loops. 5 out of 10
Story – Simple, well-told, to the point, and effective, yet with a twist in the middle. Not the greatest campaign story I’ve ever come across. Captain Titus’s strange resistance to the effects of the Warp are never explored in anything but the most perfunctory fashion, but not terrible either. 3 out of 5
Total Score – 71%, a fun and really rather innovative “hack-and-shoot” blend of genres that is ultimately let down by (relatively) repetitive gameplay, less-than-impressive graphics, and an all-too-short campaign experience.
This game is now available via the Xbox Live Marketplace for download, which I think is probably the best way to get it; I remember looking for a second-hand copy a couple of years ago and having great difficulty finding it.
Well, let’s see… You play a nearly-8-foot-tall version of Death made flesh, you fight vicious, bloodthirsty Orks and Khornate bloodletters who would drive a normal man insane if he so much as caught a glimpse of one, and if you die in the game, your final moments are punctuated by statements like, “Only in death does duty end” and “Success is measured in blood- yours, or your enemy’s”. There is exactly one woman in sight in the entire game, and 2nd Lt. Mira is there solely to add depth and character to the game. The only thing that could make this game more grim ‘n’ gritty is if EMPEROR recorded the soundtrack.
Also, this game has chainswords. I repeat, IT HAS CHAINSWORDS. Can there be a more badass melee weapon?!?
Total Masculine Value: 5 out of 5 skull-crushin’, Ork-smashin’, daemon-vanquishin’ Thunder Hammers.
Here’s some fun, violent, and bloody gameplay footage to give you an idea of what to expect:
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